Florida Gulf Coast is the story of this NCAA tournament and anyone who predicted it either has an affinity for eagles or lives in Fort Myers.
FGCU did not win the Atlantic Sun regular season title—Mercer did—and starts only one senior along with three sophomores and a junior. The Eagles play fast; we know all about their dunks and they didn’t shoot the three all that particularly well until they got to Philly.
The school is 16 years old. The basketball program just 11. The coach has a hot wife. And the school is on a beach.
This is not what a mid-major with a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16 is supposed to look like. Coach Andy Enfield has created his own formula for March success.
The Three Was the Great Equalizer for Small Schools
If you somehow missed the FGCU show, reading up on Enfield would make you believe that he coaches a bunch of great shooters and that’s why his team has reached this point.
ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil wrote a nice feature on how Enfield got his start in coaching as a shot doctor. He set the NCAA record for free-throw percentage as a player at Division-III Johns Hopkins, which is nice selling point for anyone who wanders into the shot-doctoring profession.
Enfield may have fixed some of the strokes on his team, but the Eagles are not a great three-point shooting team. They make 33.4 percent from deep and the national average this season is 33.9 percent, so they are just slightly below average.
Or…maybe Enfield waited until March to work his magic.
The Eagles upset Mercer in the conference championship by knocking down 11-of-20 from deep, and the long-ball has helped them in the first two tourney games as they’ve made 13-of-33 (39.4 percent).
What’s unusual about FGCU’s shooting from distance is that the team had gone cold late in the season—27 percent in the nine games leading up to the Atlantic Sun title game—and most long shots that make it this far get here because of the long shot.
Here are the last 14 mid-majors with double-digit seeds to make the Sweet 16 and how those teams shot the three.
Regular-Season Success Mattered
It used to be that the way to pick a good Cinderella in your bracket was to look for a team that dominated its league. That still plays a big part in identifying the national champion, but the Florida Gulf Coasts and VCUs of the world have bucked that trend.
From 2002 to 2008, eight of the nine mid-majors with a double-digit seed (we’ll call them MMDD for short) that made the Sweet 16 had won their conference’s regular season title.
In 2009, we didn’t have any MMDDs get to the Sweet 16 and the next year both Cornell and Saint Mary’s made it. Cornell ran away with the Ivy League title, and Saint Mary’s finished second to Gonzaga.
In 2011, things started getting wacky. That’s the year that VCU won five games to get to the Final Four. The Rams finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association, and Richmond, a No. 12 seed that reached the Sweet 16 in the same region, finished third in the Atlantic 10.
Last season, Ohio, which finished third in the MAC, was the only MMDD in the Sweet 16, and that brings us to this year, where both La Salle (tied for third in the A-10) and FGCU (second in the Atlantic Sun) are still alive.
The Eagles would have won the Atlantic Sun, but there was this pesky team from Lipscomb in the way. Lipscomb, the Bison for those wondering, swept FGCU.
When the Bison weren't playing the Eagles, they went 10-17, including a 100-66 loss to Belmont.
Belmont was the Atlantic Sun’s champ last season and beat FGCU in the conference championship game in 2012, which was the first year FGCU was postseason eligible.
The Bruins joined the conference realignment fun and went to the Ohio Valley this year, which they won. Their departure opened the door for FGCU, who knocked off this year's regular-season champ Mercer to get to the Big Dance.
This has all happened so fast, hasn’t it?
Usually these programs at least give some kind of warning. Butler was good before Brad Stevens started working his magic. VCU beat Duke in the tourney before Shaka Smart’s Havoc went to the Final Four. Pete Carril almost beat Georgetown before his Princeton offense took down the defending champs from UCLA in 1996.
“Dunk City” came on us quickly and that’s what they’re all about. No milking the clock and boring the big boys into losing.
FGCU is more Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels or Loyola Marymount’s run-and-gun. In an age when everyone is slowing down, Enfield has given us a team that wants to play fast.
"We're looking to run our style and we're not going to change," Enfield told me last week. "This is who we are. We're built for an up-tempo style of play."
Since 2003, Bradley in 2006 was the only MMDD to play faster than Florida Gulf Coast. And FGCU is speeding up in the tourney, averaging 72 offensive possessions per game thus far. (Any number over 70 is considered playing really fast, especially in today’s game.)
Enfield has created “Dunk City” by putting a bunch of athletes on the floor with a great pass-first point guard. Brett Comer has 24 assists in two tourney games, and this season the sophomore has assisted on 44.2 percent of FGCU’s buckets that he doesn’t score when he’s on the floor. According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, that ranks second in the country.
Anyone with a pulse—outside of Georgetown and San Diego State fans—loves this story. College basketball fans should love it in particular, because the way Enfield has pulled this off is good for the game.
We all know that success breeds imitation, and college basketball could certainly benefit from more running and more scoring.
So thank you, FGCU. “Dunk City” is like nothing we’ve ever seen before from a Cinderella.
This is Cinderella….with swag.